COVID Special Issue

Practicing for an Uncertain Season

Players line the field, months of strenuous practice finally coming into use. It’s only them, their coaches, and countless empty rows of bleachers — no spectators are seen or heard as the ball drops or referee blows the starting whistle, till the game is over.

This would be a normal season of sports at UChicago. But from mid-March last year, all collegiate athletic events, no matter how sparsely attended, were cancelled. On January 12, 2021, the University Athletic Association brought down any remaining hopes that competitions might finally begin this Spring.

After almost a year spent waiting, athletes were left wondering, to themselves: “What does this mean for us?” And, crucially: “Does this really matter?”

Emma Hoffen, a member of the women’s swim team, said: “This raises an interesting question. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If UChicago still played but no one, I mean literally no one, cared or came to see them, did they really play? In a sense, did UChicago sports teams ever truly play a game?

“Is anything different about this season from last? And the year before that? And the year before that? In a sense, why is my life this way and am I at fault for the way my priorities have been set for the past two years?”

Not all of Emma’s fellow athletes, or even teammates, agreed, however.

Her teammate Sarah Green said: “I just don’t see the point of swimming back and forth alone in individual lanes in a way that in no way affects the performance of others also swimming alone in individual lanes which happen to be beside us, unless those others are there in those lanes, which happen to be beside us. I mean, what are we supposed to do — just time ourselves and then compare results? What would the point of that be?”

And as Mike Lupica, a guy on the football team I hadn’t planned to interview but who nonetheless gave me his life story in line while unmasked at Harold’s added, “I know how we all will remember 2020. The year Crown and Ratner were closed and then opened with ‘limited access’ but no weight rooms, which means they weren’t really open at all. The year I couldn’t lift, or run, or huddle with my boys every morning and night.

“All for what?” asked Mike. “I don’t really remember. All I know is that at the mega ragers Fiji hosted each week, that I, as social chair, coordinated, the brothers were looking way less toned and that made me sad. That when we took off our shirts to huddle, intimately, and belt out the lyrics of old ABBA songs — purely to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood — their arms felt less taut and secure as they held me. That each week I wondered why I was even here in a frat, surrounded by these 20, increasingly less taut, shirtless men, until their gaze met mine and all our blue eyes locked, softly, and I could remember.

“Why did 2020 take away the tautness of all the men I love? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t think anyone knows, really. All I know is that they locked up the gyms and now we are here.”

And now we are here. No one could’ve said it better.

Thanks Mike Lupica.